My Lovely Daughter opens with a warning: "This game is meant to make people sad and uneasy but there is a deeper meaning behind the horror...this game is designed to upset and disturb you." In addition to being the world's least welcoming opening, it clearly articulates that what follows is "a commentary on child labor, abusive parenting and ignorant societies." Well, maybe. My Lovely Daughter is less a Dickensian tale of child labor than a economic/crafting sim cloaked under several layers of Poe-inspired darkness.
In My Lovely Daughter you play as an alchemist named Faust (anyone familiar with Goethe's drama or its many incarnations will be waiting for the story beats), who wakes into an amnesiac state to find his daughter dead and his wife missing. Faust notices some conveniently glowing spell books and soon crafts a homunculus, a magical being with one of four affinities: joy, anger, sadness and fear. Combining different ingredients result in different homunculi. Faust's goal is to create a robust-enough homunculus that fusing it with his deceased daughter will bring her back to life.
In order to re-animate the slowly rotting corpse of his daughter, Faust must perform a ritual under the full moon in which fuses the soul of a sacrificed homunculus with that of his daughter. As Faust creates higher-level homunculi, the greater the chances of finding that perfect balance of affinities that will bring his child back to full life and health. Of course, the process requires Faust to "kill" his newly minted children over and over again, much to their dismay.
It doesn't take long for My Lovely Daughter to settle into its basic gameplay loop of sending the various homunculi to town to labor at jobs tied to their affinities, buying increasingly rare or high-level ingredients and performing various jobs for the townsfolk to earn more gold. As the homunculi level up, their sacrifices yield better byproducts and a little more life and breath for the daughter. Surrounding the mechanics of homunculus creation, leveling and sacrifice, the story gets filled in and, pardon the pun, fleshed out. Its allegorical implications aren't terribly subtle.
Illustrated in a sepia-toned, most-depressing-picture-book-ever style, My Lovely Daughter's grim aesthetic is certainly in keeping with the tone and theme of the story, with just a hint of levity coming from the design of the sometimes surprising homunculi and a few of the townsfolk. The story unfolds slowly, and the the narrative heavy (and unvoiced) experience requires some patience both due to the dark subject matter and expository style, which is almost entirely internal monologue.
I would never argue that escapist entertainment such as videogames should not explore the dark reaches of the human psyche or behavior. Games are increasingly willing to venture into previously unexplored territory with greater frequency and effectiveness. I would argue with the assertion that people need to be reminded about child abuse and ignorant societies, as they seem pretty consistent in the headlines and are sadly part of the experience of many lives. Where My Lovely Daughter falls down for me is not the grim subject matter but the somewhat artless narrative and pacing and the repetitive gameplay loop that sustains the experience.